I’m no expert by any means, and I’ve still got a ton to learn and experience in terms of my writing method and craft. That said, however, I’ve gotten a bunch of questions lately from aspiring writers about both the self-publishing process AND the writing process in general, so I figured I would dedicate a few posts here to those ends.
First I will start, as with any good story, at the beginning… So here are my 3 basic tips for writing (clearly this is for the beginner):
BASIC WRITING TIP #1: SET A WRITING SCHEDULE AND STICK TO IT
The most useful thing an aspiring writer can do is to dedicate a block of time each day in which to do nothing else but write. Turn off the cell phone, disconnect the internet, and just focus on writing. And make it a habit.
For How Long?
I try to do about two hours a day (one in the morning, one in the evening, both on a commuter train). It really doesn’t matter how long you do it, as long as you are getting past what I call the “throat clearing” stage and into some good flow (Throat Clearing: stumbling on thoughts, writing sentences in the wrong order, saying the same thing several times but in slightly different ways, writing superfluous and ultimately meaningless or useless junk, etc. In other words: verbal diarrhea). I would imagine some people get beyond throat clearing faster than others.
What To Write?
Simply put, JUST WRITE. Anything. Write restaurant reviews on Yelp. Write your mom a letter. Write emails and Facebook posts. Read and reread everything too. Tell people stories in written form that happen daily in your life, like things that happen on the subway or while waiting in traffic. Write a blog, write your thoughts, keep a journal or a diary. Write, write, write – even when you are not composing your actual story. I write a steakhouse review blog on the side, because I love steak… In fact I am writing this blog post as a way to break through some minor writer’s block issues. I also regularly engage friends and family in written debate over things like religion, politics, and social problems to both hone my writing and persuading craft, and to learn about alternative perspectives (even if I disagree with them). Obviously if you do this sort of thing, you should always be respectful and courteous. No need to go getting all serious and de-friending all your Facebook pals just to keep up with writing exercises. I was fortunate to go through law school too, which gave me a unique ability to see many sides to a story with ease, and the rigorous writing-based schooling afforded me a rare technical ability in terms of using proper grammar, being mindful of paragraph structure, employing logic and forming arguments. This is great during my self-editing process, especially for avoiding “continuity” and logical issues, like, for instance, where a reader might say: “Well why didn’t they just ride on the backs of eagles all the way from The Shire to Mordor in the first place?” That question demonstrates a lack of understanding of what Tolkien was doing with LOTR, for sure, but that question should never even have to come up for a reader! Not every reader is going to pick up every subtle meaningful thing that a writer puts into his story. But a writer should be thinking like a reader at all times to avoid those kinds of pitfalls. More specifics on “what to write” will be covered in tip #3 (write what you know) and in future blog posts (along with tips on HOW to go about writing).
What If I Can’t?
You can. If I can, you can. I am lazy – believe me! Some people work out for an hour a day, or spend hours watching TV. You can find the time. As far as ability, I find that music helps me to cut out all other distractions. Once I get going I actually get pissed off if things take my attention away from the task at hand. Also writing is like a muscle; you can work it out and your writing muscle WILL get stronger with practice. Even if you think what you are writing sucks, just keep writing. Let your mind go, and follow your thoughts. FORCE yourself to write through writer’s block, and KNOW that all writers go through it and get through it. Just write something, anything. Even if what you end up with is a paragraph of verbal diarrhea and “throat clearing” it is still better than nothing, and more often than not it will help to get the ball rolling. You may even use the junk someday, even if you currently don’t think you will. You might find yourself repurposing it into something.
BASIC WRITING TIP #2: READ
Oddly enough I was never really a big reader, but I always loved to write. The more I read, however, the easier I found it to actually write my stories. Sometimes I’d have to put a book down halfway through and go work on my writing instead. So read often – fiction, non-fiction, whatever – both for craft purposes and for knowledge-gathering purposes. Authors tend to know a ton of stuff about a wide variety of topics just because they read and research things thoroughly during the writing process. If you want to write about something cool that happens in Antarctica for a science fiction story, then read everything you can find about Antarctica and the various research stations that are there. Get to know Antarctica. As for actual content rather than research, there’s an old Picasso quote that is useful here: “Good artists copy, but great artists steal.” This is not to say that you should rip off someone else’s work. No! But you SHOULD read others, be influenced, use some of their techniques, borrow their methods, follow their templates and – here comes the “steal” part – MAKE THEM YOUR OWN. For example, I try to weave socio-political themes into my stories the way Terry Goodkind does to “teach lessons” to readers in a subtle way, hopefully without being preachy. I also relied heavily on C.S. Lewis’ style of religious allegory for things in Fifth Stone as well. This had the effect of lending a sense of importance and meaning to that story. Simply, it became “literary.” And how can I forget George R.R. Martin? I borrowed from his style as a great way to deal with the ensemble cast in The Lazarus Impact by focusing on a different character in each chapter until they met up. I also emulated him by putting the characters’ inner thoughts into each scene in italics, cluing the reader directly into what was going on in each of their heads as the story unfolded. So READ. And don’t be afraid to do as Picasso says, even if, like me, you think his art sucks.
BASIC WRITING TIP #3: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
This is getting into actual writing tips and away from basic tips, but it is so important that it merits mention here in the basics. One thing I learned in some basic writing courses in college was this: write what you know about. I have always been a huge fan of horror, science fiction and fantasy, particularly movies and games. It’s only natural then that I write in those genres. Essentially, on a surface level, it is “what I know,” if not merely “what I love.” You don’t need to have lived the most interesting life in the world to write interesting stories. My life is pretty plain vanilla. I grew up in a loving home with no real family struggles, no significant heartache or personal loss. I didn’t battle cancer while living on the streets in a third world country and fighting an addiction to heroin, which I paid for with the money I earned from selling my body for sex. Sure; I’m well-educated, but I don’t travel much or experience big things like others do. You are more interesting than you think! And if you know what you’re doing, you can plug little things from your life and those around you into your story. I’ve done this all over the place in my writing, to the point where my dad will shoot me an email telling me that he recognizes his personal story in my book! This kind of thing creates rich detail and believability in your story, which in turn will develop a strong bond of “relatability” between readers and your story. That “human element” is what makes a book memorable to readers.
So that does it. To recap, here are the three tips:
1) create a writing schedule and stick to it
2) read often
3) write what you know about
Stay tuned for more tips!